Monday, October 25, 2010

Swimming in Whitewater

We are increasingly engaged in a national conversation regarding the need for more college graduates in America. President Obama introduced the American Graduation Initiative last spring, which calls for an additional 5 million community college graduates by 2020, and recently hosted a White House Community College Summit (http://www.whitehouse.gov/communitycollege) on the issue.

The Lumina Foundation has set a goal that they hope to influence with substantial grant support to increase the number of Americans with a two-year or four-year degrees to 23 million by 2025 (http://www.luminafoundation.org/goal_2025/). In addition, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has made student completion a significant priority by launching its Completion by Design initiative, in an attempt to bring successful and proven community college programs and services to scale in large states like New York, California, Florida, and others. MVCC is fortunate to be eligible to apply in the first round of funding, joining other SUNY community colleges in a collaborative application.

These newly articulated objectives seem daunting, to say the least - 5 million additional community college grads, 20+ million college graduates…in ten years! The harsh reality is that, collectively, we are failing to keep pace with what we know are dramatically changing times that challenge our assumptions about educational attainment in this country. Based on 2008 Census Bureau data, only 8.4% of American adults 25-64 hold an associate degree; 19% hold a bachelor degree; and 10.5% hold a graduate or professional degree. At a time when a high school diploma is surely the minimum required to gain any form of reasonable employment, 12.8% of adults have not achieved that level of education.

According to the Lumina Foundation report A Stronger Nation Through Higher Education, the U.S. ranks tenth in the world in postsecondary attainment – trailing nations in Asia, Europe, and the Americas. As U.S. graduation rates continue to underperform, in contrast to growth in other nations, the youngest generations of Americans risk becoming the first less educated generation than their elders – making them a world-wide anomaly.

Global comparisons are only one lens through which to consider increasing student completion. The Lumina Foundation illustrates the importance of higher education attainment as it relates to economic recovery and growth. “Conventional wisdom goes this way…first, the economy creates jobs, and then higher education responds to the knowledge and skill demands of those jobs so people can fill them…in this recession, there is a growing consensus that the economic recovery is being hindered by a lack of workers with advanced skills and knowledge demanded in this economy.”

With national economic interest, opportunity, and pressure mounting for community colleges to transition from the "stepchild" to the "golden child" of higher education - offering effective approaches to an increasingly under-prepared workforce - we have much to consider. The fact is that we are seeing unprecedented demand from our communities, while simultaneously feeling the effects of federal, state, and local financial crises that are resulting in decreasing state support for community college operations. Many of these changes are prompting efficiencies that are good and, in some cases, long overdue. That said, the effort to maintain high quality and effectiveness, in an environment with fewer and fewer resources, has its natural limits.

Rather than simply keeping up with double digit enrollment growth and celebrating our ability to provide access, we must amplify our mission of "student success" by thinking in terms of "access to completion." Of course defining completion will be important and, unlike the No Child Left Behind initiative, it will be imperative that we not lower academic standards as the means to an end. We need to fight hard to secure and maintain the resources needed to carry out our mission; vigilantly search for and, then, integrate proven best practices from community colleges around the country; and recognize and strengthen what works right here at MVCC.

Indeed, whenever we get the chance to "come up for air" from our everyday responsibilities, we are most certainly swimming in whitewater that, at times, leaves us breathless and searching for a patch of dry ground (which often seems far too distant).  With all that has happened and is happening we are, most certainly, facing a “new normal.”

As one community college colleague recently said, “We're living in the Land of Oz. We were blown here by a tornado we didn’t see coming, and it will take every ounce of our collective brains, hearts – and most importantly – courage, to find our way out!” If you have any comments on this post, please contact me at presblog@mvcc.edu.